Message Manuscript for “Finding Joy in Unlikely Places” Isaiah 35:1-10
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Joy has been cancelled. It no longer can go out from Joy, Illinois, that is. Up until this year, the post office of Joy, Illinois has proudly and generously provided a postmark stamp of “Joy” for anyone sending mail their way. As a reporter from WQAD reported, A holiday tradition is history for now in Joy, Illinois. After hand stamping thousands of Christmas cards over nearly 30 years, the post office must cancel the service due to limited hours and tight funding. The holiday season always comes alive in Joy. In this Mercer County village of some 400 folks, even its name, Joy, feels like Christmas each day. The city received around 12,000 letters to stamp each year, sharing their joy with people from all over the world. Budget cuts this year, however, put an end to their joy.
Maybe you know what that feels like as you move closer to Christmas in this season of Advent. The joy you once had and were able to share with the world may have been stamped out by things that have changed in your life. You have memories of what it was like to have joy, real joy, that defined who you were and that everyone around wanted to be marked with as well. You recall how it filled you, even when you had nothing else. Now, though, you wonder what has happened to it and how you can ever find it again. If you are missing joy, you aren’t alone. We live in a world that knows only fleeting happiness, mistaking it for real joy. An article several years ago in Psychology Today noted that, . . . in 2008, 4,000 books were published on happiness—up from 50 in 2000. I wonder how many books there are this year. Polls show us Americans are not happy at work and not happy at home.
If Gallup or any other pollster had been around in the days of Isaiah, there would be similar findings about the absence of joy. As we have been hearing in our Advent texts each week, Israel has been in exile for decades, detached from their homeland of Jerusalem and all the joy they once knew there. Joy, and the rejoicing it brings, were fading memories for them. In our Isaiah text (35:1-10) this morning, we hear Isaiah proclaiming that joy still exists; that what they once knew of joy could still be experienced. They could find it in their present times of suffering and dislocation, but they would also have it in their future. It would be there for them, discoverable even in unlikely places.
One unlikely place they would find it was in their weakness. They were no longer the top dog of their world. The success and victory they once knew and celebrated as the people of God who whipped Pharaoh, who conquered enemies and took possession of a land flowing with milk and honey, who brought defeat to the Goliaths of the world, brought down the walls of Jericho, and whose God inhabited their temple was now a distant memory. Their joyful days of yesterday had been stamped out by the new reality of their today, leaving no hope of joy in their tomorrow. God interrupted their sorrow with Isaiah’s words of joy, Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Their hands and knees would be strengthened as they received the everlasting joy of God. Such joy had a restorative power that would have immediate effect in their circumstances.
What we can know today is that joy is available to us as well, even in unlikely places. We, too, have memories of how it was so real and present for us in the past. You may recall your time of deliverance, as God heard your cry in captivity and brought you across the Red Sea of your life. You rejoiced when God empowered you with a sling full of rocks to slay the Goliath you were facing. Perhaps your heart strangely warms when you recall how God led you out of the wilderness into a promised land. You may remember a time when you met with God in worship, a time so sweet and powerful that you were overwhelmed with tears of joy. All of those recollections of joy, however, may be just that—recollections.
The most unlikely place, then, for you to find joy in your life could be in the weakness of your present moment, in your hands and knees. What do you see when you look at them? What do you feel in them? They have a way of getting so worn by the toil of working our way out of problems, the pain of digging out of holes, and the stress of fatigue from overuse that they can become obvious indicators of our weakness. You may entirely feel beaten down and weakened by the things of life. It is in your weakness, though, that you can find real joy. It is in the present reality of your vulnerabilities that you can know that God is at work. As a Christmas carol puts it, Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king. As we see receive the reality of the advent of Jesus into our world, we feel his power giving strength to our weakened hands and giving renewed power to our feeble knees. What an infusion of joyful power God gives when we need it the most.
The people in exile would also be able to find joy in the unlikely place of fear. God wanted Isaiah to make sure the leaders of Israel were giving constant doses of encouragement to the ailing hearts of the people in captivity, to those who were “fearful of heart” (NRSV). Anathea Portier-Young pointed out in her commentary on this text a better way to translate this phrase, that, A more literal rendering of the Hebrew phrase nimharê lēb yields, “ones whose hearts are racing.” That certainly brings the meaning closer to home, doesn’t it? If you were in captivity, longing for home, your heart would be racing too. God had a word for their racing hearts, Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you. They could rejoice in knowing that God’s deliverance was on its way.
We also can find joy in the unlikely place of fear in our lives. Fear has great power over us, paralyzing us with its hold and cutting off our joy with it’s darkness. It has been said that the number of anxiety disorders is as high as ever, that we are now living . . . in the Age of Anxiety …. We’ve become a nation of nervous wrecks. We all have our fears. What are yours today? What fear in your life right now is paralyzing you and cutting off the joy God has given you? In this week of Advent, may you hear the words Isaiah spoke to fear long ago, the word of God for people who fear: Say to those who are of a fearful heart, Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.
In case they ever wondered if this joy would disappear or run out, God had Isaiah proclaim to them that it was everlasting. The joy God had for them to receive was already available in their distress, but would only increase and endure in their future, chasing away all sorrows and sighing. It would be upon their heads. Here is another unlikely place for joy—on their heads. Shouldn’t it be in their hearts? The Message translation puts it this way, . . . unfading halos of joy encircling their heads . . . It was above them, accessible and available to be received and worn.
In case you may be wondering if this joy you find in God will run out, you must know that it is not just available in your today, but in your tomorrow as well. It is “everlasting.” It is an inexhaustible resource God has provided for you in and beyond your present circumstances. In fact, it even gets more powerful with each day passing as the advent of Jesus is fully realized in our world. What we can have now of joy in our lives and world is just a small part of what is to come. We can have everlasting joy now, even in life’s troubles. It is above and all around you. And one day soon, all sorrows will flee as our joy becomes complete.
The imagery in an article I read this week about this Isaiah text has stayed with me. It is from Rev. Ann Howard, from the blog beatitudessociety.org . In it, she wrote about the crocus, which Isaiah mentioned would bloom in the desert once again. She shared her experience,
When I was a little girl, my Dad often took us out hiking. One of our favorite places to go was the woods right behind our house, where we walked up an old dirt road to the top of the hill. From up top we could see across the Minnesota fields and river bluffs down the whole Mississippi Valley.
One day, in late winter, when the sun was getting a little higher on the horizon and the snowdrifts were getting a little lower, my Dad and I bundled up in boots and parkas and mittens and set off, just the two of us, on the first hike of spring. He said there was a surprise for me up at the top of Coon Hill.
We climbed to the top of the hill and my Dad did have a special surprise for me: a snow picnic. We built a little fire of twigs and branches, we roasted a few marshmallows and then layered up graham crackers and Hershey bars to make s’mores. Then my Dad told me to climb up over the big rocks, away from our picnic spot, to see what I could see. Just as I got to the other side of the rocks, I caught sight of a splash of purple: wild crocuses! Pushing up through the snow, the strong, sturdy little crocuses blazed bright, and winter ended.
Bright new life blazing brightly in the drab dead of winter. Isn’t that what our Father shows us at Christmas, in the unlikely place of the straw and dust of a manger tucked away in a barn in Bethlehem? As we will soon see and sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
[An audio version is here.]